[lg policy] Malaysia: Taking a page from history

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 7 16:39:32 UTC 2011

Taking a page from history
Posted on 7 November 2011 - 05:11am

by Dr Kua Kia Soong

IN THE raging controversy over the continuance of the PPSMI option,
there seem to be at least two main arguments put forward for not
allowing it – that it is too troublesome to have two options in the
same school, and that English is not the mother tongue of Malaysians.
I believe that choice and flexibility must be a fundamental principle
in education policy and that we should take a historical perspective
of the development of our present situation.

Mother tongue as a right and facility

First, we should be thankful that the right to mother tongue education
and the fact that every child learns best in the mother tongue is a
principle that has been established in Unesco and is now widely
accepted in our country.
Mother tongue education in Malay, Chinese and Tamil in Malaysia has
seen staggered progress. Chinese-language schools have existed in this
country for more than 200 years, the first set up in 1819!

Tamil schools have also had a long history and developed mainly
through community support during the colonial period. Thus, at
Independence there were already 1,350 Chinese primary schools and 78
Chinese secondary schools, while Tamil primary schools numbered more
than 800 in 1957. Malay vernacular schools were built under colonial
rule, but they were certainly insufficient. Then, Lim Lian Geok, the
“Soul of the Malaysian Chinese”, never failed to encourage the Malay
community to call for development of Malay mother-tongue education,
including to secondary level. That was why Utusan Melayu would ask Lim
to write a column in the newspaper during Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

English-language schools were of course the preferred system of the
colonial power and the elite and middle class were enrolled in them,
although theoretically they were open to all. Certainly there were
also children from poorer classes in the English-medium government
schools I studied at in the 50s and 60s.

As a result of this history, English language can now be considered
the mother tongue of these middle-class Malaysians, where English is
the “family language” with which children communicate with their
parents. We should appreciate that colonial societies like ours
(including India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Kenya and other British colonies)
have this peculiarity, acknowledge and respect this reality, and move

Right up to the establishment of the 1961 Education Act, the school
leaving certificate for Chinese-language secondary schools was a
government administered examination. Our education system managed well
and you did not hear grumbles about how “troublesome” it was to have
that provision. We inherited that system from our specific history and
it served the purpose of providing mother-tongue education.

The 1961 Act did away with Chinese-language secondary schools, and
they were then forced to become “independent”, which meant they had to
be supported by the community. After that, the government provided
only teachers and some financial support for Chinese-language primary

Is it “troublesome” to ask for the reinstatement of Chinese-language
secondary schools in the national system? Ever since 1975, the Chinese
community has administered the Unified Examination Certificate of the
60 independent Chinese secondary schools which have a total enrolment
of some 60,000 students. Tuition fees are a burden to the many parents
who choose this educational route for their children and the Chinese
have subsidised these schools since 1961. It is like paying double

National language policy
The former “Government English Schools” had to convert to teaching in
Bahasa Malaysia (BM) when the national language policy was implemented
after 1969. Any protests were muted in the aftermath of “May 13” and
under the assertive Malay-centric ideology of the new ruling class.

And so this system of BM as the medium of instruction has been
implemented with no leeway for dissent for at least three decades.
Then nine years ago, Dr Mahathir decided to implement the PPSMI, or
the teaching of Maths and Science in English.

PPSMI has provided the precedent for this breach in the national
language policy. The justification was that it was the only way to
master the international language, English. If we bear in mind all the
arguments used by the Mahathir administration to justify PPSMI, we
really cannot fault the parents organisation PAGE for asking for the
choice of keeping PPSMI, using the same arguments. Sorry, the
government cannot have its cake and eat it!

Choice of PPSMI “troublesome”?
Some opponents of PAGE’s demand have said that having two media for
teaching Maths and Science in the same school is too “troublesome” and
unreasonable to impose on the government. I beg to differ.

Education is about having a choice. I remember when my eldest brother
was in secondary school in the 60s and was focused about choosing Arts
subjects even though he was in the top class made up of mainly Science
students. He stood his ground against the school administration. My
parents did not even come into the picture. Then, my second brother
refused to study Additional Maths even though he was in the top
Science class because he was focused on doing Medicine later. Again,
he was adamant about his choice and the school had to give in. I made
the same choice and did not choose Add. Maths even though the school
wanted uniformity.

The principle we were fighting for was choice and flexibility. At the
time, we simply could not see why it should be “troublesome” to have
that choice.

If it is troublesome to have the choice of Maths and Science in
English, what about the choice of having “Pupils’ own Language” in
Chinese or Tamil or Kadazan or Bidayuh, etc?

Although I do not agree with the pedagogical wisdom of this, some
students of Independent Chinese Secondary Schools even have the choice
of doing the SPM in Malay during their fifth year, the UEC in Chinese
and A levels in English in their final year! It is not considered
“troublesome” for these schools.

It is not as if Malaysians are asking for something so difficult to
implement. Our national education system has had a long history of
English-language teaching and we have just had nine fresh years of
PPSMI; so teachers and resources are not a problem.

Our education system should be looking at broadening the choices to
cope with mother-tongue instruction for our indigenous people; and
special education to cope with slow learners, autistic and disabled
children. I remember when my wife had to write the answers for a child
with muscular problems who was sitting for his O Levels at the British
Council. Another sightless friend of ours told us about how computer
programmes were being developed to enable people in her situation to
follow lectures online.

“Troublesome” seems to be the hardest word in the education vocabulary.

Dr Kua Kia Soong is a director of human rights organisation Suara
Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).


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